By Nina Koevoets
Jan 21, 2016
Men are obsessed with sex, according to this article by Steve Bearman in Elephant Journal (and re-posted on this website). Men are thought to think about sex all the time, and allowed to be sexual all the time. For women that is pretty different...! We will be frequently judged as either a whore or a saint, a slut or a prude. It's very difficult to navigate this, being a young woman today, and comes with a very ambivalent attitude towards our sexual nature. Not having sex with men can lead to feeling insecure, while having sex with men may risk earning a 'bad' reputation. And showing your sexuality may put you at risk for abuse too.
Now, I don't just want to talk about how it's unfair that men get praise by having many women, while women are shamed. I want to go further. Bearman says we're socialized as gendered beings from our birth on, and that we “have almost no experience of relating to human beings not on the basis of their gender.” This is indeed a huge issue... Yet, he completely overlooks the female experience, and the similarities there are with the male one. Yes, the socialization processes are different, but there's much overlap in the results. (Note: I'm here only speaking about Western cultures, as these processes may be very different in other cultures).
Be 'a big girl'
For those who did not read the article: according to Bearman boys are no longer cuddled when they grow up, and are taught that they are 'better' than girls and to develop competitive relationships with other boys. Moreover, men are socialized not to show sadness or fear, but instead demonstrate often reckless behavior. The competition results in 'violence-based groups', where there is both competition inside the group and between groups. And the repression of feelings results in the desensitization of the body. Girls, in my experience, are allowed to be afraid and sad, but only to a very limited extent; to be 'a big girl' means to toughen up and swallow these emotions down. After all, the men set the standard in Western culture. If we are 'too emotional' the men around us will not want to be close to us, or discredit our intellectual capacities, as if emotional expression is something 'irrational' and therefore a 'bad' thing to do. And indeed, most boys don't want to play with girls.
But they get interested as they age. We are surprised at first, until we discover that it's not our intellect they're interested in, but our bodies. So now, our intellect is also something that should rather not be showed too much, if we want to be 'desirable' to men. At least not to the extent he will feel threatened... And we want to be desired by them, because that somehow proves our 'value' to others around us. Some girls may even feel 'obliged' to engage in sex with men, because she has come to believe that their desires are always more important than hers.
So, many teenage girls have learned to suppress their emotions, and even hiding their full intellectual capacity for men and they start to focus on their looks to gain the attention of boys (who changed their attitude towards them as they age). This increases competition between women. In other words: like boys, girls now also start to compete and develop competition within their circle of friends and between groups.
Moving away from the commodification of sex
Competition is the central concept of capitalism, which is a major element in Western culture. The competition and commodification that enhance economic growth become part of our mindset and shape both men and women. With commodification I mean that nearly anything is converted into consumption goods, so that the economy can grow. And as we rely on the monetary system for our survival, since many people turned away from growing their own food, economic growth is essential. (We even call it earning 'a living', as if we don't deserve to live if we don't earn money).
It is this context or way of thinking that turns sex into a commodity that sells... We get bombarded by sexual images through television, advertising, and pornography, as Bearman also notices. Mostly the object of these sexual images are women. And so the competition in having the most desirable body is not even just among peers, but extends to models shown in the posters, magazines, television and videos on the internet. These images often give girls and women the impression their bodies are 'not beautiful' at best and 'disgusting' at worst. And also here we see a duality: there is a kind of identification with the body at one level, where “my body is not as beautiful as the pictures” means “I am not beautiful, as a person.”And there is a dissociation on another level, because she has been taught to suppress her emotions and she receives the message that her outer beauty is more important than what's inside. Personally, I have been quite focused on developing myself mentally during my teenage years and early twenties, but this mental focus also meant I was not connected to my body and I sometimes felt insecure whether I was 'beautiful enough'. Moreover, the fear of judgment made it impossible to express myself freely sexually. One of my friends told me she felt 'obliged' to engage in sex with men, when she was younger, because she had come to believe that her desires were less important than those of men. Another friend was molested as a girl and grew up wanting to be a boy. These are all examples of dissociation in different ways. The point is that the female body becomes an object of desire and something that men can almost 'posses', even if it were only for a short time.
Conflicting attitude towards sex
For boys sex is depicted as 'the solution' to their isolated experience, since it is a way to show their vulnerability and experience intimacy, according to Bearman. Unfortunately, I have to disagree here. There are indeed men who show their vulnerability and are genuinely open and intimate, but I've noticed that many men go after sex as some kind of competition, and also see it as a way to validate their worthiness, just the same way girls and women do. And that is because of the commodification; sex is something to have, not to experience. Moreover, they see women as objects to satisfy their need to 'release tension' which they of course have built up in our competitive society. Such men have no regard for women's needs, and although some women may perceive this as 'normal', I can't imagine they don't experience it also as quite painful. And the cycle goes on: women repress that emotion and continue to offer their body, which they have now dissociated themselves from...
Thus, for her, sex is not the solution to intimacy at all! She develops some kind of conflicting, even contradicting, attitude towards sex: on the one hand she has to engage in sex to prove her value and be desirable to men. On the other hand she cannot show sexual desire, because that would make her extremely vulnerable to men that are only out to exploit her. So with every guy she meets that's interested, she tries to understand how 'acceptable' her behavior will be. How can she avoid to get labeled as a prude nerd, or a promiscuous slut? The 'archetypes' of the saint and the whore are centuries old, but are valid until today; as it seems nearly impossible to escape the judgments, both from men and (perhaps even more so) from fellow women…
Getting in touch with passion
On the other hand, fortunately it is true that sex can create a marvelous place for intimacy and connection, pleasure and nourishment! And Bearman asks an important question: “What happens to human beings who have been, since early in life, isolated from intimate connections with other people, cut off from their own feelings, and numbed to bodily awareness?”. He suggests that passion, as opposed to obsession and repression, is the answer. Not more sex, because this will never fulfill the need for love and intimacy that we all have. So, it's rather the quality than quantity of sex that we have which matters. And that is an important realization for both men and women: for men as they can stop an endless unsatisfactory chase for sexual partners and for women, as they can start to get in touch with their intuition and true feelings, rather than fighting a hopeless battle against the judgments of others.
“Passion, not repression, is our greatest ally in the battle to liberate our complete humanity,” Bearman beautifully words. We need to reclaim intimacy, our feelings, and our bodies. And here I very much agree with his conclusions. We can experiment with creating intimacy, not just on a sexual level. That also opens up the possibility to do so with people we're not attracted to, so we can separate intimacy from sex. We, both men and women (!), have to start to notice, recognize and understand our feelings. Centering yourself in passion also means we re-connect to our sensuality, which goes further than sexuality; experience the feeling of grass on our bare feet, the water on your skin under the shower, or the taste of your food in your mouth.
How to overcome ambivalence and attain a wholesome attitude
I'd like to propose a few more tools to follow Bearman's advise and move beyond the conflicting, ambivalent attitude women have towards sex. First of all: spend some time observing what is going on in your body and mind. Meditation is a great way to do so, but writing can help as well. Meditation has really helped me a great deal with re-connecting to my body and understanding what it says. You can also start to thank your body for all the marvelous things that it does for you each day, helping you to function in this world. That way you will start to love it, with all its flaws and beauty.
To find more sensuality you can develop your creative skills. I believe that creativity is a very similar energy to sexuality, if not the same, since penetrative sex leads to the creation of children if we do not obstruct this natural process. A child also carries the genes of both the woman and man, and is therefore the manifestation of the feeling of unity that can be experienced in sex, particularly during an orgasm (that, by the way, also aids the process of fertilizing the egg!). Creative expression can be another way to honor the unity that we all long for, and find some kind of connection to this feeling, without relying on sex.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, women have to come together with other women to discuss these socialization processes that I'm describing. This is what I did, and I want to thank my fellow sisters for the insights I'm now sharing with you. If we had not discussed with each other how we relate to our sexuality, our bodies, men, each other, I would not have seen that we have a very common experience and that we can feel so much strength when sharing our struggles and listening to each other with compassion.
These meetings also lay the foundation for us to connect in a different way to men, because when we can go beyond competition and trust women, we can start to trust men. Then we can approach them more openly and relaxed. When we create trusting friendships with men we don't have to feel so vulnerable anymore, because we can express our sexuality in a safe way, without feeling neglected or disrespected.
I think that we should start to speak about our fears also to men. Only in that way we can overcome them. We should never allow anyone to disrespect us, and set clear boundaries. Know that you are never obliged to do anything, and always free to stop. Practice this with someone you feel safe with perhaps. This way you can turn a feeling of vulnerability, and a fear for rejection possibly, into a strength. Also express what you want, and tell men that you find that a bit 'scary' (if you do). From my personal experience I can say it helps with feeling more free in your sexual expression.
So to conclude: both men and women will have to get more in touch with their feelings and bodies to experience positive, connecting, intimate sex, based on a recognition of each other's needs and mutual respect. And, of course, fueled by a healthy passion. We thus need to overcome the habit of commodification and understand that competition can be destructive for our well-being (while recognizing that it's also useful in some circumstances). We need to find ways to liberate ourselves from the heaviness of each other's judgments. These judgments and expectations disconnect both men and women from themselves. You can start by observing your body and mind, connecting to your body and expressing gratitude for it. We can find intimacy outside of sex, connect to our creative abilities and connect and share with other women. With awareness, we can create a 'sex-positive culture' together! When we can leave the fear for judgments and stop judging ourselves, I am hopeful that women can finally overcome (internal) conflicts with regards to sexuality, and the shame, doubts and shyness that come with it, and that we can embrace the sensual and sexual part of ourselves full-heartedly. Then men and women can experience the intimacy everybody longs for so much.